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Buridan’s Ass: A Paradox Redux

Adebowale Oriku with a warning about indecision.

Temi mentally pulls up short. For moments she fights shy of an involuntary seizing-up of her motor nerves. Her legs, most of all, have gelled with irresolution. A decision to stop walking altogether would have checked this sudden onset of lightness she feels – but there is a shade of qualms in her thinking. Her heart is as light as lint: it shuffles like an apoplectic ’s in its cage.

In a way Temi is smitten. She has just lit on a one Zimbi pound banknote. The money lies on what may have been the pavement of a rugged dirt-road, one of ten thousand untarred roads in Zimbi City. The note is slightly stippled with dust and dirt, and only just visible. It is about two meters away. Like everyone with a lack, it would have possible for Temi to see a piece of brown paper and momentarily believe it to be an aquamarine banknote, willing herself to see paper as money. But she is affected the other way: when she ought to be sure that what she is seeing is money, Temi still thinks it may be mere paper. She cannot believe she has found a luckypiece this morning: she has not often been this lucky. She sees the banknote with such jaundiced eyes that she goes beyond the common whim to objectify where there is no object, to subjectifying where she has clearly seen an object. This is still also very human. But then she resolves in her mind that what she is looking at is money.

Temi’s main lack is money: not money to buy jam and the sweeter things of life, but money to buy bread, a mere loaf. The eighteen-year old is presently on her way to where she hopes to be hired as one of the fifty drawers of water at a construction site. She has not eaten this morning. She did not eat last night, either. Every member of her family fanned out to odd-job earlier, and all her hopes of eating a breaktime brunch are concentrated on the airy possibility of borrowing money from someone on the site, who she will pay back after she gets her wage.

And here now is money before her, lying there so innocuous and inviting in the dust. But as Temi moves towards the banknote her mind suddenly becomes the moral equivalent of a broken car windscreen, cracked into a spectrum of montages by the soundless impact of a little stone. Of course, one Zimbi pound can’t buy more than a square breakfast, and that is what she will use the money to buy if she can pick it up. But Temi’s mind splits apart concerning whether she should pick the money up or not; then her mind subsplits still, antlers of indecision bucking up before her. While she knows she can eat her morning fill with the note, something holds her back, an invisible straitjacket and shackles, bands of inscrutable scruples.

This is not an empty street. Busy houses are on either side. Vehicles and motorcycles go past her. Temi glances back to see if anyone is coming up to her. There is no one close. It is still early morning, the street has not begun to teem with people; even the early birds are few and far away from her. She can simply step forward and pick up the banknote. But there are houses at the sides of the road, and the money lies close to the front of a bungalow. An aged woman peers out of the bungalow’s window like a forgotten inmate of Kafka’s Castle who has suddenly seen the light of day. A man and a woman stand at the door of another house, perhaps arguing over the inadequacy of the money the man has given the woman to buy stew-things in the market.

There is another man. He stands several metres up the road, wearing a smart powder-blue shirt and a pair of black trousers. He appears like someone on the way to work – the sort of work a man would dress so formally for on a Saturday. He seems to be waiting for a taxi at the side of the road. Of everyone around her, this young man is the only person who may stand between Temi and the money, although he is not standing that close. If she decides to pick up the money he may not even know she has picked anything up, and he certainly does not physically stand between her and the money.

Temi’s indecision reaches fever pitch as she stands next to the money. To take it or not? She needs money. She is hungry. But how will she go about picking up the money? What if others are watching besides those she sees now? Some impish boys might be doing this for fun: dropping the money and hiding, lying doggo to watch someone pick up the money then bursting out with a cry of “Drop it, thief!” She winces at being shouted at as a thief. Even if she has not gone out of her way to break into a place to steal, picking up the Zimbi pound note will amount to stealing-by-finding: about as antisocial in her way of thinking as being caught in a state of semi-undress in one of the city’s parks making love with a boy. She remembers that a girl and a boy were caught doing that recently.

Temi’s moral outlook might be seen by a cool observer as verging on the saintly. She holds it not so much because of the tough love upbringing her poor father gave her and her siblings, but because she had long found she could just as easily shrug off little temptations like allowing herself to be deflowered when she was fourteen, as a big one like going away to work in a brothel – something a couple of girls who used to live in her street did when they dropped out from secondary school years before. Those girls were from families as poor as hers. One of them returned home recently, ravaged and wracked with AIDS.

Perhaps the inability to make those small and big decisions now makes it difficult for her to simply bend down and pick up the money: she is too morally hampered. She isn’t sure she would be able to scoop the banknote up even in a lonelier road than this. How will she do it? Make a show of bending to scratch her ankle? Wish for a freak wind to scrape up the money and drive it against her midriff, where she can clutch it in her hand?

Temi remembers a kleptomaniac classmate she had. That light-fingered girl would not think twice before snapping up the money. Temi almost regrets that she does not have the brass the thieving girl had, though the girl suffered a lot of disgrace for her misdemeanours. Temi imagines such brazen kleptomania would be a welcome disinhibiting factor now. She knows nothing would prevent that girl claiming that the money she picked up was hers, even if it was an obvious booby-trap.

Perhaps inspired by the thought of the girl-thief she knew, Temi decides to turn back round and pick up the money. She is very hungry. But as she turns round she sees a girl of about her age wearing a pair of blue jeans and shirt, standing right on the spot where Temi saw the money moments ago. Temi watches the young woman genuflect as if to greet an older person. But in a flash, her upper body poised on her haunches, the girl picks up the money. As it disappears into her jeans pocket her eyes meet with Temi’s. She smiles, slightly prettifying a gaze that’s half-dazed and dusky, as if from an overnight party. She brushes past Temi, almost bodychecking her, still smiling in a way that suggests she is repressing a chuckle. It occurs to Temi to stop the girl, to buttonhole her, to pull at the tail of her untucked shirt and tell her she has just picked up money Temi just accidentally dropped. Temi again begins to grapple with her moral antlers, this time over how she will prove it is her money. Did anyone see her drop it? Who but her saw the girl pick it up?What if the girl denied picking up anything?

“Finders keepers!”

Did she hear that? The phrase strains into her head like the dog-end of an echo. Temi breaks off her worrisome detour into devices she might use to get the money from the girl. She cannot even begin to do anything like that. Even now the girl is sailing down the street away from her.

So Temi walks slowly towards the construction site. The hunger seems to be raging now. She wonders whether she will be able do a stroke of work that morning if she does not have a bite of something first. She also wonders if she is not now too late to enlist for the piecework. The construction site always teems with people looking for jobs.

© Adebowale Oriku 2008

Adebowale Oriku was formerly the Arts & Culture Editor of the Gambian Observer newspaper. He is now a freelance writer.

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